Josh Esler still remembers the simple, yet encouraging, words from Mark O'Meara when the old pro and aspiring pro played 36 holes of golf together during a U.S. Open section qualifier at Conway Farms in Lake Forest three years ago.
"He said, 'Just keep doing what you're doing,' " Esler said, " 'and I'll see you out here soon.' "
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O'Meara's pat on the back of Esler's golf shirt meant oh-so-much to the talented youngster.
The next week, Wauconda's 5-foot-9 pride and joy in FootJoys teed it up in the U.S. Bank Championship outside of Milwaukee. Playing with an unknown named Jason Dufner, Esler shot a 66 on Day 2 at Brown Deer Park. Dufner fired a 63 -- and three years later finished second in the PGA Championship -- while Esler missed the cut.
But the thrill of playing pro golf was something Esler wasn't going to miss out on.
"I was thinking, 'This pro golf thing, it's pretty good,' " Esler said.
This golf thing is hard.
Esler is still trying to earn his PGA Tour card.
"The last three years," Esler said, "I've been bouncing around playing everywhere and anywhere."
Today, Esler is a member of The Dakotas Tour, an 18-event pro tour played in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. It's his second straight summer playing a full schedule.
He isn't teeing it up with the Mark O'Mearas or Jason Dufners. But after winning his first four-day event as a professional last month, Esler is confident both his career and golf swing are on the right path.
By winning the Hillcrest Invitational Pro-Am in Yankton, S.D., Esler pocketed a check for $22,000 (his biggest payday). Even better than his 19-under-par total -- he shot 65, 67, 67 the first three days -- was validation that his mental approach needs little, if any, tweaking.
"I think the confidence came first, before the win," Esler said. "Sure, I'm more confident after winning. But for me, I've been feeling confident the last three years. It's been a work in progress."
Two weeks before his 2-stroke victory in the Hillcrest invite, Esler captured a one-day event at Olive Grove in Groton, S.D. He also won a one-day tournament last year and has a pair of two-day Pepsi event titles to his credit, too.
Prevailing over four days, as he did in the Hillcrest invite, was special.
"It's a big step in my career," said Esler, who graduated from Wauconda in 2003 and the University of Arizona in 2008. "But anytime you can win, whether it's a one-day, two-day or four-day tournament, it's big. Winning is winning.
"It's been a heck of a journey so far."
The 26-year-old's journey included a brief attempt to cut it on the Asian Tour last winter. A friend of Esler's plays on the tour and talked him into giving it a try.
"It was a great experience for me," Esler said. "But I did not prepare properly for the grass I played on. The Bermuda rough ... The greens were so grainy. It was like nothing I've ever played on before."
Esler knows he can putt. Which is wonderful, considering putting is often what separates the guys who play on the PGA Tour from those who struggle on the minor league tours.
He credits a belly putter, which he used his junior year of college, for training him where to release the blade of his putter.
"I've turned myself into a very good putter," Esler said. "I struggled with the putter all through college. That's where I've really improved since high school and college."
At the end of the month, Esler heads to Q-School for another shot at earning his PGA Tour card. The last two years, he's missed by one stroke of advancing to the second of four stages.
"My game is more ready than it's ever been," Esler said. "For me, it's just a matter of time before I get out there (on the PGA Tour)."
Mark O'Meara will be looking for him.